Legal Basis for Extended Traffic Stops

Traffic stops occur on a regular basis throughout the country, usually resulting in either a traffic citation or a warning. There are times when, during the course of an otherwise routine traffic stop, a police officer may become suspicious of other possible criminal conduct. Because of this suspicion, the officer lengthens the traffic stop beyond its intended purpose (i.e., to issue a traffic ticket or a warning) in order to investigate. The question then becomes whether the officer is legally justified in extending the scope of the initial traffic stop. This was one of the major issues in the Supreme Court’s decision earlier this week in State v. Alston, where a police officer extended a traffic stop after observing evidence of possible drug activity.

A Traffic Stop Is a Seizure

It is well settled law that a traffic stop is a seizure for Fourth Amendment purposes. As a seizure, it must be reasonable in order to survive constitutional scrutiny. To do so, there must be probable cause to believe that a traffic law had been violated. In such case, the traffic stop is reasonable per se.

The law, however, places significant restrictions on traffic stops. Primarily, the stop is limited to what is necessary for the officer to investigate the traffic violation and issue a citation. Any additional detention beyond what is necessary constitutes a second detention. In the same vein, the Fourth Amendment also prohibits using dilatory tactics to lengthen a detention.

Additional Detention Requires Reasonable Suspicion

In order to justify continued detention, the officer must have “an objectively reasonable and articulable suspicion illegal activity has occurred or is occurring.” In this regard, the officer’s subjective beliefs about the situation are irrelevant. Instead, the inquiry centers on “an objective assessment of the circumstances.” At the same time, courts give a fair degree of deference to the officer’s judgments as influenced by their experience and training.

This was a large part of the discussion in Alston. There, the officer observed Alston swerving within his lane and repeatedly touching the dotted lines. The Supreme Court agreed that sufficient probable cause existed to initiate the traffic stop. During the course of the traffic stop, the officer observed additional facts which lead him to believe Alston was involved in criminal conduct. Based on this additional information, the officer lengthened the detention to investigate further.

In any case, the law exists as such to prevent legitimate traffic stops being used as pretexts for other, unrelated investigations. It also serves the purpose of restricting the invasiveness of an otherwise legal encounter with the police. The fact of the matter is that it does not take much time or that broad of an inquiry to investigate a traffic violation. A routine traffic stop, without more, should not include half an hour’s worth of questions and a search of the motorist’s trunk.

Judicial Review of Probable Cause/Reasonable Suspicion

It is clear that the Supreme Court struggled with the justifications the officer gave for extending Alston’s continued detention. In fact, the Court seems to have rejected the lion’s share of those given. Yet, it affirmed the lower courts’ rulings finding reasonable suspicion existed. It is against this backdrop that one must then understand that judicial review of probable cause and reasonable suspicion are a fairly deferential process.

“[C]ourts must give due weight to common sense judgments reached by officers in light of their experience and training.” State v. Taylor, 401 S.C. 104, 113, 736 S.E.2d 663, 667 (2013) (citing United States v. Perkins, 363 F.3d 317, 321 (4th Cir. 2004)). In this way, the courts must review and give weight to the totality of the circumstances observed by the officer. This means that one fact does not make or break a case for probable cause or reasonable suspicion. At the same time, an appellate court reviewing the same determination will only reverse for “clear error.” Thus, if a trial judge determines that probable cause/reasonable suspicion existed and there is any evidence to support that decision, the appellate courts will uphold the ruling.

This is precisely what happened in Alston. The Court found most of the officer’s arguments (and I’m putting words in the Court’s mouth) absurd. Still, given the totality of the circumstances, the Court found that there were some facts (specifically the inconsistent travel plans) which supported reasonable suspicion.